Shortly after her oldest daughter’s birth, an Argyle mom we’ll call Leah got her first taste of the chronic GI health troubles to come.
“My daughter had terrible acid reflux,” recalls Leah (who asked to remain anonymous for her daughter’s privacy). “I tried different formulas in an effort to ease her discomfort. She was put on Zantac as early as she could be, around 5 or 6 months, so she could hold formula down. Once she reached the ‘food eating’ stage and transitioned off formula, it improved, but she had severe food aversions.”
Leah’s little girl would eat only bland foods (crackers, mild cheese, noodles)—“nothing with seasoning and no veggies. Very few fruits,” her mom says. Then, at age 4, Leah’s daughter developed a serious body odor problem. “That really threw me for a loop,” Leah says. “No way a child that young should smell that bad. I didn’t realize at the time that both of those things were signs of gut issues.”
Gut issues can have a variety of causes and manifestations in children. If your child is suffering, your family isn’t alone.
GI Troubles are Very Common
“I often joke in my clinic that everyone is constipated until proven otherwise,” says Dr. Alina Olteanu, who practices pediatric integrative medicine at Whole Child Texas in Frisco. “No day goes by when I don’t treat a child or a baby with tummy issues, ranging from infantile colic and feeding difficulties to chronic constipation and chronic abdominal pain.”
Other conditions associated with poor gut health may surprise you: Olteanu ticks off allergies, asthma, eczema and other skin issues, anxiety, attention difficulties and sleep problems as potential indicators. According to Dr. Constantine Kotsanis, an otolaryngologist who is the medical director for the Kotsanis Institute for Functional Medicine in Grapevine, even autism can be traced back to digestive issues. “Autism spectrum disorders are primarily gut disorders that affect thinking and emotions,” he suggests, adding that “in our clinic, almost every child we see has moderate to severe gut issues.”
So even if your child isn’t showing traditional digestive symptoms, you may benefit from a conversation with a professional about gut issues.
“The health of the child starts with healthy nutrition and a healthy gut,” explains Olteanu, whose practice takes into account the patient’s whole being (body, mind, spirit) and their lifestyle. She uses both traditional and alternative treatments with the children who come through her office. Some parents whose children have gut problems say they’ve had trouble getting more mainstream pediatric practices to take their concerns seriously.
“Our pediatrician did not believe any issues were serious enough to look into further,” says Leah. “I knew in my heart something was going on and had to go mostly on my own to figure things out. I searched a very long time to find a doctor who would do more than just look my daughter over and say nothing was wrong.”
Olteanu has a more optimistic view of the mainstream medical community but notes the full implications of gut health aren’t always understood.
“Lots of pediatricians use probiotic supplements for a variety of common childhood conditions, like constipation or to prevent antibiotics-induced diarrhea,” she points out. “However, more work needs to be done to increase awareness of the gut-brain connection, especially how stress can affect gut health and how improving nutrition and gut health can have a positive impact on a child’s mood and development.”
Kotsanis advises that gut health be addressed “very aggressively” during a child’s first eight years. “The reason is the fact that 70% of the immune system lives in the gut,” he says. “A healthy gut is reflected in a healthy immunity. Also, 80 percent of brain hormones are made in the gut. A healthy gut influences the brain very positively; an unhealthy gut is reflected in an unhealthy brain.”
How to improve gut-issue symptoms
In Leah’s case, it unfortunately seems like her daughter’s initial treatment led to even more trouble. “The doctors I found who actually believed something was going on have agreed this was caused by the use of Zantac at such an early age and for such a long time during the development of her digestive processes.”
Even now, at age 13, Leah’s daughter has lingering gut problems. The teenager has a stalled metabolism; she also has a very limited palate and remains unwilling to try new foods that aren’t bland. But there have been improvements.
“We discovered a few years ago that the extreme body odor was being caused by milk. At the recommendation of one great doctor”—coincidentally, that was Olteanu—“we removed milk from her diet, and within a week we noticed a significant decrease in the odor. It was amazing, and I felt terrible that I hadn’t thought of that earlier,” shares Leah, who adds that her daughter also has fewer bathroom emergencies. She has also developed a better understanding of what foods support good digestion.
However your child’s gut issue presents, here are some recommendations:
Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Olteanu says don’t underestimate the value of enough sleep, physical activity, fresh air, happy relationships and stress management.
Be thoughtful about what your child eats. Kotsanis says “toxic fast foods, sugar, wheat, corn, soy and milk products” are all causal factors of gut problems.
You can also improve gut health through diet; Olteanu shares that an anti-inflammatory diet can be extremely helpful. “Many chronic conditions have underlying inflammation in the body,” she states. “Your child’s body tries its best to heal itself after an injury or feeling unwell. Still, when the inflammation process goes off the rails, it begins a cycle of chronic illness.”
The focal points of an anti-inflammatory diet include fruits, veggies, whole grains, plant-based proteins (beans and nuts) and healthy fats. Stay away from, or keep to a minimum, foods that are highly processed, greasy, very sweet or have artificial dyes. “Some additives can act like or become neurotoxins,” warns Olteanu. “Sugar and artificial sweeteners are inflammatory foods, as they feed the wrong bacteria in your child’s gut microbiome.”
Dessert isn’t a complete no-go; it should just be a special treat rather than a daily expectation. “Help your child develop a palate for dark chocolate and fruit-based desserts,” Olteanu suggests. When it comes to fruits and veggies, encourage your child to eat a “rainbow” a day—a wide variety of colors.
For children who have trouble with cow milk (“Casein, a milk protein, may be hard to digest for some children, and many become sensitive,” explains Olteanu), there are dairy-free alternatives for calcium intake and vitamin D. Talk to your doctor before eliminating any food groups, though.
You can serve fermented foods with natural probiotics, such as pickled veggies and sauerkraut, and prebiotic-rich foods (apples and bananas, to name a couple). And have your children drink water. “Insufficient water intake can slow down everything from cellular function to your metabolism and your ability to fight off infections,” Olteanu says.
Stick with it. Olteanu knows what you’re thinking. Changing an eating regimen is hard, especially for kids. Still, “the anti-inflammatory diet can be enjoyable and, most importantly, satisfying,” she notes. “But it’s the health benefits and the visual improvement of your child that’s most rewarding.”
Of course, your child doesn’t need to be currently experiencing gut-related conditions for your family to take up these lifestyle recommendations. “It’s always much easier to prevent any illness than to treat it,” Olteanu says.
That’s Leah’s philosophy with her second daughter, who is 3. “Knowing what my older daughter went through, and still goes through, I wanted to make sure we set my younger child up for the best possible outcome with her gut health,” she says. “I did so much research on the things you can do early on. It’s amazing to me what a difference this little bit of knowledge early on can do for kids long term.”
Gut Health 101
New to gut health issues? Here’s a few fundamentals to know.
What exactly does “gut health” refer to? It’s the health of the entire digestive system.
What’s a microbiome all about? This is the collection of lots (and lots and lots, as in trillions) of bacteria, viruses and fungi that co-exist in our intestines. Most of the bacteria are friends, helping us digest food, keeping our intestine lining healthy and protecting us from bad bacteria, among other benefits. Everything from breastfeeding and medications to pets and where we live can influence our microbiome.
A microbiome imbalance in kids (too much bad, or inflammatory, bacteria, or too much yeast; or too little bacteria, both good and bad) can cause symptoms ranging from cramping to heartburn.
What can cause a microbiome imbalance? A lot of things. Autoimmune diseases, celiac disease, diabetes, exposure to bacteria at birth, food poisoning, food sensitivities (gluten sensitivity, for example), certain medications … it’s a long list of possibilities. Consult your pediatrician or a pediatric gastroenterologist for help.
Image courtesy of iStock.